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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Gulliver's Travels, published in 1726, is the most famous work of the Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift. The novel describes the voyage of Lemuel Gulliver, an Englishman who ends up exploring the far corners of the world. Gulliver's Travels features four distinct fictional civilizations the protagonist discovers: the tiny Lilliputians, the massive Brobdingnagians, the Laputas in their floating city, and the wise Houyhnhnms, a race of humanoid horses.

Swift did not intend for the story to be a mere adventure narrative. Instead, Gulliver's Travels is a scathing political satire as well as a lamentation on human nature. Though much of the political aspect of the novel can only be viewed by the modern reader in its historical context, the concept of the role that perspective plays, both for the individual and for society, is a timeless theme.

1. Gulliver's Travels was written to protest a political party.

Swift's novel is generally considered an "anti-Whig satire." Swift despised the the Whigs, a British political group led at the time by Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Swift viewed them as oligarchical, or based on a government controlled by a small group, and responsible for violent trade wars and unchecked colonization overseas.

2. An author used Gulliver's destinations to protest state censorship.

Magazine publisher Edward Cave published accounts of British parliamentary debates, a practice frowned upon by the government. In fact the government told Cave to stop publishing the debates altogether. In response Cave modified the accounts using Swift's characters and locations. Entitled Debates in the Senate of Lilliput, the articles were published under the pretext of Lilliputian politics but were in fact somewhat modified versions of parliamentary debate transcripts.

3. Gulliver's Travels is often compared to Robinson Crusoe.

Though Gulliver's Travels was published only seven years after Daniel Defoe's castaway novel Robinson Crusoe, many critics believe Swift's novel may have been a sort of rebuttal to it. While Robinson Crusoe praises the Western traveler's traditions in the face of native populations, Swift shows a traveler who encounters numerous foreign civilizations more prosperous and advanced than his own, hinting toward an anticolonial sentiment.

4. Gulliver's Travels was originally published under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver.

Since Swift's novel was such a harsh political satire, he credited the protagonist as its author when he published it. Given the absurdities of Gulliver's voyages, Swift assumed no one would be foolish enough to read the novel as a factual account.

5. There are two different "schools of thought" regarding Gulliver's Travels.

The "soft" and "hard" schools differ based on Gulliver's fourth voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms. Scholars arguing for the hard school propose Gulliver is an artistic device used to portray disillusionment with human nature, whereas the soft school considers him to be a fully developed character with a complex psychology of his own.

6. An anime studio borrowed the name of one of Gulliver's destinations.

Japanese producer and director Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, famous for anime movies such as My Neighbor Totoro, released a film in 1986 entitled Laputa: Castle in the Sky (or, in some countries, Castle in the Sky). The film was based on Swift's vision of a technologically advanced city floating above the clouds.

7. Gulliver's Travels was made into one of the first cel-animation films.

Producer and animator Max Fleischer's 1939 cartoon version of Gulliver's Travels was the second feature-length production to use cel animation—a technique in which each frame was hand-drawn on celluloid film. This technique was employed in nearly all cartoons before the invention of computer-generated animation. Fleischer's cel animation was preceded only by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

8. The four locales Gulliver visits are reversals of one another.

Evident in the differences between the places Gulliver visits, the concept of reversals is integral to Swift's novel. As the Lilliputians are tiny and the Brobdingnagians are enormous, the Yahoos are ignorant while the Houyhnhnms are enlightened. Gulliver is perceived in a reversed manner by these peoples, as well: first he is large, then small, then wise, and then dull.

9. Jack Black stars in a 2010 film version of Gulliver's Travels.

The film adaptation is modernized, featuring Black as Gulliver, a mailroom worker in New York City. The movie only incorporates the adventure to Lilliput from Swift's novel, omitting Gulliver's other three destinations.

10. Swift criticizes the scientific method in Gulliver's Travels.

Scholars have noted that, despite having liberal political views, Swift satirizes science as well as politics in his novel. The realm of Laputa, where science has taken an impractical turn and fails to improve life, can be seen as Swift's rebuttal to a scientific tradition that prizes accuracy of measurement over the practical application of knowledge.

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